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Campus minister’s open-air forum answers crux questions about faith

URBANA, Ill. (BP)–“I’m really searching, but what if I don’t find the answer before I die?”

“I prayed to receive Christ when I was young. I read my Bible, but God doesn’t speak to me. Why doesn’t God speak to me?”

“Your God created evil. How can you worship a God who created evil?”

These are a few of the questions Phil Nelson, campus minister at University of Illinois, Urbana, has been asked during the past several weeks. In early fall, Nelson began a series of “open-air dialogues” on the college campus of some 37,500 students, many of whom are non-believers.

On Thursday afternoons, with as many students from the Baptist Student Union (BSU) as can go, Nelson heads to the quad, a common area on campus, where students have been invited to meet him and ask their pressing questions about the Christian faith. Many stay for one to two hours, asking questions and listening to Nelson’s responses; many return the next week … and the next.

“The Christian faith can answer any question that students can throw at it,” Nelson said, modeling the dialogue on the Acts 17 model of the apostle Paul as he traveled to Athens. “The gospel we have can stand up to any investigation, and we are attempting to communicate that on as many academic campuses as we can.”

Nelson, who has been campus minister there for six years, said the “response has been unbelievable … with at least 10 non-believers coming every week.” He estimates that the open-air dialogue has given him and his BSU students contact with at least 60 non-believers whom they would otherwise not have met.

“In the 20 years of ministry with college students, I have never been in a place where students are indicating more hunger for truth than right now. We have had several students return each week to ask questions and to hear the claims of Christ,” he said. As students return week after week, Nelson can get to know each student and begin to gauge each individual’s spiritual journey, with some moving from open atheism to an openness to read the Bible and pray.

In addition to the non-believers being reached, the open-air forum has strengthened the faith of his faithful group at the BSU, Nelson said. The dialogue has “taken our students to another level. They’ve had their faith strengthened. It has given them courage that Christianity can handle the tough questions.”

The fall weather has been almost balmy, but with cold weather on its way, Nelson is committed to looking for an indoor, non-threatening location for the dialogues to continue.

“We are living on the edge of a tremendous awakening among college students,” Nelson said. “College students across our country are clamoring for truth, truth that is understandable and consistent. What an opportunity to share the gospel!

“This is not the time for the church to stay behind her doors and sing the songs of Zion,” he said. “It is time for the church to come out of her worship closets and reason with this generation that is hungering and thirsting after God.”

    About the Author

  • Margaret Dempsey